Science Fiction Belgrade

© Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

by Srđan Tunić

This essay is the second in a “mini-series” of two essays on the critical potential of science fiction. The first essay considered how science fiction can function as social critique and discussed different literary techniques and devices. This second one will expand the story in reference to concrete examples—works by Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić, grounding the analysis in the Balkan context. (And if you continue reading to the end, there may be a surprise waiting for you there … )

In an article (“Vreme kao ključna odrednica SF žanra”) written in the midst of the Yugoslav Civil War (1991-1995), the Serbian science fiction (SF) writer Milovan Milovanović stated that most local SF stories seemed disconnected from the everyday situation of most people in the Balkan region at that time. According to him, in order for elements of novelty in SF stories to be accepted by readers, you need a realistic historical background and not just escapism. Even though SF imagines the future and diverges from the present, it always springs from specific places and histories (see also this chart of how historical trends in SF have changed over time):

For example, when the threat of nuclear war hung over the world during the 50s of this [20th] century, what else could the favorite topic for SF writers have been? Later on, at the beginning of the 70s, it was raising ecological awareness, due to the widespread knowledge that the world was mostly disappearing into a vortex of a biological catastrophe. This is not just related to the frequency of specific topics at specific times; it refers to a way of thinking that was totally different at the beginning of the [20th] century, the 40s, 60s, or today. The world today is not the same as it was five or ten years ago and that is strongly mirrored in SF literature.

Belgrade, as the capital of all versions of the union of South Slavs in the twentieth century, holds a prominent place in representations of state power and as a battleground for diverse imaginings of the future.

This is where Belgrade (and the Balkans in general) enters the story. Belgrade, as the capital of all versions of the union of South Slavs in the twentieth century, holds a prominent place in representations of state power and as a battleground for diverse imaginings of the future. This text will discuss its images and interpretations through two contemporary comic book authors working in the SF genre—Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić. Whilst the former has been based in France for a long time, with Yugoslav heritage, the latter lives in Serbia. Both feature Belgrade in their comics and films, and both work predominantly for the French market. The artworks in question are Bilal’s Bunker Palace Hôtel (1989) and Le Sommeil du monstre (The Dormant Beast in English, aka the Hatzfeld tetralogy, 1998-2007), and Gajić’s Technotise (comic, 2001) and Technotise: Edit & I (film, 2009).

Back in 2023 Belgrade … © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007.

The prominence of Belgrade as a setting in the authors’ works has been recognized by Gajić himself. In an interview with Deborah Husić from 2011 (in English), the use of Serbian language in the film Technotise: Edit & I was mentioned as one of the novelties (or what Darko Suvin would call novum), because, as the artist noted, “usually everything happens in Tokyo, Paris, Berlin or New York.” Aleksa Gajić responded that he did not want to make compromises for the market:

Usually, authors have this strong need to flatter the audience in order to be accepted. Meaning, they will answer to all ‘expected’ patterns from the public. As a matter of fact, most of the films we are watching today are made having these patterns in mind. I really wanted to run away from these things with Technotise. I wanted Belgrade to be like that, let them talk in Serbian, and let them express local jokes and natural urban expressions in an SF story (emphasis added).

Why are there no UFOs in Lajkovac?

SF was mostly associated with western geography and popular culture.

Zoran Živković, one of the pioneers of modern SF in Yugoslavia during the second half of the 20th century, famously stated that “leteći tanjiri ne sleću u Lajkovac”, meaning that UFOs do not come to a typical Serbian village. This came to be know among the sci-fi community as “Zoran’s law”. This metaphor indicates both that SF set in a local context was rare (or non existent) and that SF was mostly associated with western geography and popular culture (for a further discussion, check out Milovanović’s guide to SF, in Serbian). This, unfortunately, does not take into account contributions from the former USSR/Russia, or other non-western countries. In this geographical (or geopolitical) discussion the worlds of manga and anime, which originated in Japan but have spread to other parts of Asia, also play an important role today.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade in 2074. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise, 2001.

The world depicted and the context (reality) from which it departs (or reacts to) are tied together.

The lack of grounding in local history and settings—or the lack of UFOs in Lajkovac—pinpoints the escapist nature of many SF works of former Yugoslavia and Serbia. However, this “law” started to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, simultaneous to the breakup of the SFR Yugoslavia (which is discussed in “Leteći tanjiri ipak sleću u Lajkovac” by Ivan Đorđević, and “American Science Fiction Literature and Serbian Science Fiction Film: When Worlds Don’t Even Collide” by Aleksandar B. Nedeljković). The example of UFOs in Lajkovac highlights two aspects of SF I consider relevant to this analysis. First, that SF narratives have their own internal structures and logic; and second, that there is a dynamic and productive connection to be made between a narrative and its author—and potentially between a narrative and its local historical and geographical origin as well. That is to say that the world depicted and the context (reality) from which it departs (or reacts to) are tied together.

This is closely related to the discussion in the previous essay, “Science fiction between utopia and critique,” of how authors can employ different perspectives and literary traditions—utopian, dystopian, alternative histories—to both imagine a different society and show a (critical) reflection of our own. With these concepts in mind, we will now look at the oeuvres of the two artists.

The dystopias of Enki Bilal

Enki Bilal’s work in general features darker SF topics and overtones, which could be identified as dystopian, often tackling issues such as totalitarian regimes (theocracy and fascism), colonialism, corruption, identity crisis, schizophrenia, and despair, but often with an ironic tone. A great source (in Serbian) on Bilal’s work is a special issue of the magazine Gradac, edited by Miroslav Marić; in the following, references to critical discussions and quotes from interviews with Bilal, unless specified differently, are derived from this special issue of Gradac.

Bunker Palace Hôtel (1989) is the first feature film Bilal directed, co-written with his long time collaborator Pierre Christin. It is set in Belgrade in an alternative reality, or the no-time of uchronia, with a combination of French and Yugoslav actors, but targeting the French market. Some commentators characterize this film as a critique of the socialist regime in Yugoslavia (which Bilal has denied), as well as an announcement of the overall breakup of the Eastern bloc in Europe. Initially, Bilal wanted the film to take place in the USSR, with Belgrade as his second option. In an interview from 1988, he clarifies his choice:

If you insist, the film talks about a [political] system that mostly resembles fascism. I wanted the film, where one cannot see which country or time is in question, to be filmed in a somewhat oriental, extraordinary setting for the French [audience]. To have a bit of exoticism. And I am very happy to film here, because the Yugoslav actors contribute to that exotic impression.

Following the (omnipresent) leader. © Enki Bilal, Bunker Palace Hôtel, 1989
Savamala part of Belgrade. © Enki Bilal, Bunker Palace Hôtel, 1989
Railway system, Savamala. © Enki Bilal, Bunker Palace Hôtel, 1989

He also incorporates a fictional Slavic language, used by the rebel characters, in this “exotic” feeling. People’s names vary between western and Slavic (Holm, Clara, Nikolai, Zarka, etc) however, there is no explicit naming within the narrative of the film of the rebels, the state, the city, languages, ideologies, nationalities or time. The film follows the SF trend of alternative histories (uchronia), with dystopian elements and an exploration of the question: What if the Nazis had won the Second World War (WWII)? (a question echoing in SF since Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle). If we accept this line of thinking, using the image of (the then) socialist Yugoslavia as a mirror/reference society becomes more complex and troubled.

Everything is retro, or “retro-futuristic”, which is a familiar setting within certain SF subgenres.

We need to understand the alternative history setting of the Bunker Palace Hôtel itself. Any reference to the then contemporary society is mostly avoided—cars, technology, architecture, clothing. Everything is retro, or “retro-futuristic”, which is a familiar setting within certain SF subgenres. In the film we can see well-known buildings from the pre-WWII decades, such as eclectic, art nouveau and modernist architecture: mainly the French Embassy, Svetozara Radića street, Savamala’s train system, and the BIGZ and Geozavod buildings. Additionally, one can see anachronistic technological inventions, post-dating the actual society, one of which is humanoid androids. Researcher Jelena Smiljanić calls this vision an “(…) onirist post-socialistic Belgrade, intermingled with Bodriarian (sic) simulacrums (…) creating a simulated hyper-reality” (Onirism was a surrealist literary movement in Romania during the 1960s, while in psychiatry it refers to a mental state in which visual hallucinations occur while fully awake). All of this taken together creates the retro-futuristic and surrealist setting of Bunker Palace Hôtel.

Different visions are present in Le Sommeil du monstre, or The Dormant Beast in English, also known as the Hatzfeld Tetralogy, which is one of Bilal’s latest comic series produced between 1998 and 2007. Set in 2026, it portrays what seems to now be a near future with advanced technologies in a dystopian, global setting. The narrative is revealed through two intertwined processes. Three main protagonists—Nike Hatzfeld, Leyla Mirković-Zohary and Amir Fazlagić, all orphans from the Yugoslav civil war—are trying to reunite with each other. The second narrative is Nike’s recollection of his childhood, taking us from the day of his birth in 1993 to the midst of the siege of Sarajevo. Bilal’s position shifts from one of the insider to a broader cosmopolitan global perspective; but it is his portrayal of the Balkans that I will primarily address here.

Belgrade: Hotel Moscow. © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007
Belgrade: Terazije. © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007
Sarajevo. © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

Belgrade and Sarajevo are two of the dystopian locations featured in Le Sommeil du monstre, presented (as in Bunker Palace Hôtel) in a retro-futurist mix where the old and the new are messily joined together. All cities in the series have a strong feeling of decay; as comic book author Zoran Penevski said related to Bilal, “it is the world of a narrative apocalypse.” In an interview for Serbian magazine Vreme, Bilal stated that Belgrade had changed little since when he moved to Paris in 1960. When he was asked in another interview why he avoided presenting contemporary times (war scenes in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina or the NATO bombing of Belgrade), he answered:

It is strange but when I’m portraying a brutal scene, I feel very uncomfortable placing it in the present. While if I position myself 20-30 years [into the future], then I can enjoy the creative process (…) I am visiting the future in order to come back to the past and the present. (emphasis added).

The narrative of a painful past and a not so optimistic future unwinds in the series, while the breakup of SFR Yugoslavia is still fresh.

The narrative of a painful past and a not so optimistic future unwinds in the series, while the breakup of SFR Yugoslavia is still fresh. Just after the Hatzfeld Tetralogy came out in 1998, Bilal said that his interest in Yugoslavia was triggered by the violent events of the war, the violence that triggered a “monster of remembrance”. The concept of reflective nostalgia coined by Svetlana Boym could be applied here, a nostalgia that does not tend to reconstruct the past but to instead be skeptical or critical of it, since the return to a imagined better past is impossible. In this case, it was the author’s creative way of purging the disturbances caused by the war.

A dystopian mode is prevalent in the Hatzfeld Tetralogy, where the future brings a continuation of conflicts, but there are also some utopian sparks. Among those, Bilal also plants a powerful image of human segregation according to religious affiliation (and nationalism). According to an essay by Aurélie Huz and Irène Langlet, the avoidance of national or religious categorization of the main heroes (storytellers) in this comic pinpoints not only a state of uncertainty about identities after the dissolution of the joint state, but also Bilal’s own critique of segregation. If one accepts the argument that those very divisions contributed to the violent dissolution of multicultural life and shared space in SFR Yugoslavia, embedding similar divisions into a future society, for example in Paris (“Catholics only”, “Salafists only” in the comic), Bilal voices concern and a warning that history may repeat itself. This is why the question “Are you Serb, Croat or Muslim?”, posed several times, remains unanswered in the story.

© Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

The utopias of Aleksa Gajić

In contrast to Bilal, Gajić’s work has more humorous and light tones, a trademark of both his comics and animation work. He mostly works in the epic, fantasy, cyberpunk and SF genres, or something he calls “optimistična futuristika” (optimistic futuristic). These aspects of his work are discussed by Pavle Zelić and Anica Tucakov. Gajić’s bachelor degree project was a comic titled Technotise, with Darko Grkinić as a writer, and this later served as a starting point for Technotise: Edit & I (in Serbian: Tehnotajz: Edit i ja), which became known as the first Serbian feature-length animated film. In both works a utopian vision prevails, providing a predominant insider viewpoint of the portrayed societies.

State of Pobednik (the Victor) at Kalemegdan fortress, Belgrade. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise, 2001.
The Kula Sibinjanin Janka (The tower of Janos Hunyadi) or the Millennium tower, Zemun municipality. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise, 2001.
© Aleksa Gajić, Technotise, 2001.

The adolescents portrayed lead a hedonistic, middle-class life, centered around sex, drugs, hoverboard competitions and going out.

The Technotise comic (created in 1998, published in 2001) pays attention to two different time periods, both of which deviate from the present. At the very beginning there is a short episode from 1739, but most of  the comic is set in 2074. It traces the adventures of a group of adolescents, led by Edit, in Belgrade. It is mostly set on the Great War Island (Veliko ratno ostrvo), a natural reserve between rivers Sava and Danube which are surrounding the city from two sides, and in Zemun, an old municipality where Gajić lives. The adolescents portrayed lead a hedonistic, middle-class life, centered around sex, drugs, hoverboard competitions and going out. Their names are a combination of foreign (Edit, Broni, Herb, Woo) and local (Sanja, Bojan), their looks and habits are seemingly typical of (western) teenagers but they are also contextualized through Serbian language, backgrounds and references. The film Technotise: Edit & I (2009) kept the main characters and semi-utopian quality with a more developed retro-futuristic, cyberpunk image of Belgrade. Real locations were shot and then futuristic details were added. In an interview (in Serbian) for B92 portal Gajić explains:

Belgrade 2074 is a city where the future came without an urban plan. Yes, the buses are floating above the streets, but also run late, so there are traffic jams. Facades are futuristic but also run down. The locations are altered, but still recognizable, so you cannot mix our capital with some other city. I made an effort to give this SF film a dose of plausibility, because I think that’s the way for the viewers to believe the story (…) That’s why the main hero is a regular girl with common problems that anybody can identify with and understand. At the same time, I haven’t given up my desires—I made a film I would like to see myself.

Recalling the different “gaze” positions I developed in the previous essay in this mini-series, the worldbuilding technique used in the film can be seen as an example of the present projecting itself directly into the future. A not-so-perfect setting reveals the social awareness of the film, pushed to another plane. Whilst it triggers humor, it can also remind viewers of the unresolved issues present in the Serbian and Belgrade society of 2009: Roma people collecting garbage in the city (here competing with robots), robots begging for new graphic cards, “eternal students” using tricks to pass exams (“bubice”), adolescents living with parents, telenovelas, old buses and police cars (Zastava 101 models), a rural grandfather yelling that children need to go back to the countryside and so on. Gajić draws attention to these references to the present in interviews by Sonja Ćirić and Ivana Matijević. Through its projection of present issues into the future, the film turns these present issues into a heritage that weighs down on the future and shows that the future does not automatically free itself from the problems of the present. However, optimistic tones are still prevalent, echoing a tendency in feature films of the New Belgrade School in post-2000 Serbian society, where authors are grasping the “(…) opportunity of this new start, constructing a virtual city made up of cultural and genre idioms”, as Nevena Daković shows in “Imagining Belgrade: The Cultural/Cinematic Identity of a City on European Fringes”.

© Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009
Kalemegdan fortress and riverside, the confluence of Sava and Danube rivers. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009
The Post of Serbia at Savamala (pre WWII design of Momir Korunović). © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

Belgrade’s transformations triggered by the social upheavals of the 1990s and a feeling of a new start in the 2000s are most visible through film. Daković states that this cinematic cityscape is closely linked to space, time and matters of (transcultural) identity:

The cinematic cityscape is thus a complex identity performance. In the case of Belgrade, it presents a rich succession of identity conflicts and shifts, encompassing identities spanning from exotic Orientalism to virtual cosmopolitanism, with a nodal contrast articulated as Orient-rural-Balkan vs. Occident-urban-Europe. Belgrade’s city identity constantly vacillates between these poles, spilling over borders, moving between and among the times and spaces of the various identity constituents (emphasis added).

The cityscape changed from a socialist idyll, through the ghetto of the 1990s, to a “pure locus of the possible”—a cosmopolitan identity after the democratic elections in the 2000s.

In the context of post WWII Yugoslavia, and then Serbia, the cityscape changed from a socialist idyll, through the ghetto of the 1990s, to a “pure locus of the possible”—a cosmopolitan identity after the democratic elections in the 2000s. SF imaginings of Belgrade can therefore provide an understanding of contemporary positions and identities when the author’s projection is deeply grounded in the local context of Belgrade and Serbia, but also provide a means for temporary escape from the reader’s (or viewer’s) own body and society.

One of the major criticisms of Technotise in Serbia was that the film treated SF in a more humorous way, which was also a creative break with the majority of SF productions. Another critique was that it used youth slang and references to contemporary Serbian society. This situating of the film’s narrative, according to the author, was both a personal choice and a break from acknowledged patterns and habits of the genre, especially SF that is mostly set in highly developed technological societies in the West or Japan. A Serbian film critic, Dimitrije Vojnov, said in an interview that “in a (Serbian) cinematography so loaded with the past, the future rarely manages to reach the screen, and when it does, it is an ironic reflection of the present or past”, thus noting how Gajić diverged from a mainstream.

In preparation for his next film, Prophet 1.0 (Prorok 1.0), Gajić said that he wanted to present “the future in a Serbian, not American or Japanese, way.” And in explaining what is “Serbian” about Edit & I, he referred to the collaborators, financing, language, and topics. To this list, I would also add the Serbian locations. Curiously enough, this seemingly patriotic declaration does not include any loaded traditional or nationalist topics or statements within the artworks’ narratives. This mix between an international outlook and national (or local) grounding is connected to the affinity between SF and both “escapist” and critical situated knowledge, as I discussed in “Science fiction between utopia and critique.”

© Aleksa Gajić Prorok / The Prophet, 2016

The identity of the (future) city—the identity of its ma(r)kers

These two dimensions of SF—the escapist and the critical—are present in the works of both Bilal and Gajić. Around two decades have passed between the UFOs that do not land in Lajkovac and the emergence of locally grounded SF in a Serbian context. In the cases of Bilal and Gajić, it is important to understand why they decided to contextualize their narratives in locations that they are physically and/or emotionally attached to. In both cases the topics were mostly a matter of personal preferences, which led to works that differ from the ones that the two artists do for the (mostly) French market. Bilal had already made a name for himself in the 1970s and 1980s, allowing him to treat contemporary, more politically engaged and personal topics with greater ease. But Gajić’s work for the French market differs from Technotise, which departs from and clashes with the market’s popular tropes, and this made him pause his international work during the film’s production. In facing many challenges while making the film, he said: “If the film doesn’t succeed, the repentant son will go back to France. After all, swords, magic, slaughter and the rest… it’s not so bad at all!” and “If I wanted money, I would have probably made a movie about little animals and wizards” (interviews with Peđa Popović and for Domino magazine, in Serbian).

Comic relief—a village grandpa in the middle of futuristic city. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

Bilal and Gajić, in the narratives and messages of their artworks, have found ways to resist the official nationalist rhetoric that is so prominent in Serbian politics.

I would argue that both Bilal and Gajić, in the narratives and messages of their artworks, have found ways to resist the official nationalist rhetoric that is so prominent in Serbian politics. They are not, however, hiding their national identities in their work about Belgrade and the Balkans, into which they bring a strong sense of engagement and lack of concern for market pressure. The question then becomes: whose eyes are we looking through? What differentiates people from one another? The contextualization of stories takes place through specific characters, names, settings, cities, histories, and references, but at the same time avoids demonstrative national images, such as flags and other national symbols, religious affiliation of heroes and so on. In Bilal’s case, as already mentioned, characters refuse to identify with the causes of war, in protest, whilst Gajić finds politics overwhelming in Serbian society and prefers to find ways to create artworks that entertain and make people laugh. He views this as a more noble and honorable cause than being serious and scared.

Could this escapism embed in itself any Balkanism, as defined by Maria Todorova? In academia, the concept is defined as a discourse where the Balkans were (and sometimes still are) presented and constructed as the“other” of Europe, a negative stereotype, inverted mirror. In her book Imagining the Balkans, she states that creators of Balkan images from the Balkans itself are very self-conscious of the imposed discourse:

Unlike Western observers who, in constructing and replicating the Balkanist discourse, were (and are) little aware and even less interested in the thoughts and sensibilities of their objects, the Balkan architects of different self-images have been involved from the very outset in a complex and creative dynamic relationship with this discourse (…).

Hotel Moscow, Belgrade. © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

Another researcher, Maria Palacios Cruz states that “the Balkans seen from the Balkans” in film seem more concerned with being accepted than subverting the West’s images of the Balkans itself, thus reproducing criteria, stereotypes and divisions. Gajić’s escapism in the futuristic Technotise does not eliminate reality bites of SF Belgrade, nor does it avoid a sense of cosmopolitanism; after all, it provides a sort of hope. Bilal made a somewhat exotic Belgrade setting in Bunker Palace Hôtel, whilst in the comic series it is clear that the main characters are resisting nationalist narratives and paving an unstable road of their own, avoiding stereotypical media discourses. In Bilal’s own words:

I am not rejecting my own roots. When I say that it is dangerous to look inside oneself too much, in your own past, memories, remembrances, nation, religion, your territory, it is. That gaze is dangerous but I find it necessary. It is crucial to carry it with oneself and move with one’s own roots.

Conclusions: SF as cosmopolitanism?

Daković characterizes new film directors in post-2000 Serbia as employing escapism, cosmopolitanism and postmodernism. The cinematic cityscape of Belgrade is based on a “‘glocal’ identity [which] is made up of local elements with global appeal, local themes in a global expression and local events of inevitable global consequences”, quoting the definition by Paul Virilio. Or, as a beer ad in Serbia says: “global, but ours”.

Inside the Bunker Palace Hôtel. © Enki Bilal, Bunker Palace Hotel, 1989

Binarisms (local – global, national – international, patriot – cosmopolitan) come with a whole set of contextualized inclusions and exclusions. One’s attachment to a local stance might be seen as conforming to nationalism, even xenophobia, or as a resistance to the processes of globalization – or simply as staying faithful to the politics of location, as outlined by Donna Haraway in her theory of situated knowledge. Thus, one’s identification with a city might even be a means of resisting national identity (for more on this topic, see this study by Ivana Spasić in English). On the other side of an imagined pole stands cosmopolitanism, which is grounded in openness and universalism, criticized for being an elite stance associated with pro-Western and pro-European political ideologies in the Balkans.

In the Serbian context, after a global phase during socialist (or Tito’s) Yugoslavia, SF entered a (re-)traditionalist period grounded in nationalist political projects and imaginarium from the mid-1980s. This more traditional aspect of the genre contains many elements previously mentioned as characteristic of fantasy. Anthropologist Ivan Đorđević in his “Antropologija naučne fantastike: tradicija žanrovskoj književnosti” (Anthropology of Science Fiction: a Tradition in Genre Literature) says this production is in essence local, where certain traditional elements, taken selectively and strategically, create an image of how a culture sees itself at certain times (This perspective could be compared to Andrew Liptak’s article about nationalism in militaristic SF). Đorđević notes that a crucial distinction is made between Us and Them (Europe, the West, or the world in general), revealing the central gaze of traditional narratives as being nationally tailored. In this way, SF visions carry fears of losing one’s “roots”, or allowing cultural assimilation; that is, if the future is generally understood as cosmopolitan, with universal (most likely western) tendencies for humankind. This view of the imaginative role of SF echoes antiglobalization discourses.

Remembering 05th October 2001, The Parliament building. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

The imagining of science-fiction Belgrade operates between tensions and opposites.

Overall, the imagining of science-fiction Belgrade operates between tensions and opposites. Just as in general SF, it provides universal knowledge claims about the future (and our global present), while at the same time situating the narratives in local history, social issues and geography. On a geopolitical level, it it susceptible both to Balkanism—accepting the Balkans as the “other” of Europe—and to Europeanism or Westernism—the construction of universalist global imaginaries. However, it is also a space for personal narratives and alternative visions, offering locally grounded stories, enriching the SF field. As such, it offers utopian and dystopian settings, escapism and social critique.

As Nevena Daković writes, “The transcultural identity and imaging of Belgrade is the result of a fusion of Balkanism and Europeanism, of local and global aspects in a city that is multi-layered and multi-faceted”. Which identity of the city will be used, in which setting and time (dystopian or utopian), heavily depends on the need to escape or construct alternatives in the present moment.

Illustrations:

  • Technotise and Technotise: Edit & I courtesy of Aleksa Gajić.
  • Bunker Palace Hôtel from Pinterest.com and WorldCinema.org.
  • The Hatzfeld Tetralogy from TapaTalk.com, JogLikesComics.blogspot.com, Passion-Estampes.com, and Pinterest.com.

For more info on SF in Serbia (and Yugoslavia) available online:

 

APPENDIX

Belgrade Cooperative building—the center and mirror of city visions

Hey! (waving) Are you here for… HELLO! Are you guys here for the time travel tour?! Glad I found you so quickly, this place is crowded, follow me. Is it just you or are we expecting others to join us as well? Okay, good, we’ll have some extra space for us then, c’mon. Dobar dan – welcome to Experience Belgrade Through Time, the most popular time travel tour you can find in Serbia. As a promotional tour, we offer taking you to a selected point in the city and watch it how it changed during time. Once you book one of our full tours, you will be able to choose among other exciting programs going all the way back to the Roman times. Now please give me the vouchers, take a seat and put on the security bells. You learned a bit of Serbian already? Ah, rakija, of course. This tour will last for two hours and this time I’ll take you to a wonderful building you could find at Savamala district. Been there? Oh, it’s a must! Let’s go!

Stop 1: 1907

Source: Goethe-Institut Belgrade, Urban Incubator.

This is one of the city’s pearls, look at the beauty of it—decoration, monumentality, how it voluptuously imposes itself to the area, charming everyone. Let us have a glimpse inside… This building we usually call Geozavod, was actually made for the Belgrade Cooperative bank, by our famous architects Andra Stevanović and Nikola Nestorović, whose other works you could see in the area. It is one of the prime works of architecture in this period, mixing academic and Art Nouveau styles, Renaissance and Baroque decoration, and the first one using reinforced concrete in Serbia. Just move aside, izvinite… Saw these workers? The area was surrounded with new buildings, ponds and beaches, as one of the entry points where both merchandise and people arrived in Belgrade. Alas, after World War II, the cooperative bank was no more, the building had different and changing tenants, and underwent architectural changes. Luckily, it was never bombed! Speaking of bombs, let us go the our next stop

Stop 2: 1989

Source: Bac Films.

Čoveče, do you recognize this one? How could it be? The building really underwent a bit of a deterioration, like the whole Savamala district, becoming a place filled with old glory, noise, shady characters and almost forgotten. Or simply unpopular to hang out to. But this one is actually from a surreal movie by a French artist born in Belgrade, do you know who he is? I’ll give you a tip, he made comics… Nikopol? Immortel? (beep beep) What’s this? Nevermind, the movie Bunker Palace Hotel took place in an alternative reality, at the very end of socialism of Yugoslavia, Belgrade being its capital. In the movie, it’s a hotel, but actually a bunker for members of a ruling regime, hiding from a mysterious threat… I won’t tell you more, please do see the movie, and if you like film history, check out Kinoteka’s tours as well!

Stop 3: 2012

Source: Mapio.net

Look at the old lady, all run down, but still standing proudly. Nostalgic gem, memory of times passed, but not too long so nobody would remember its past glory. Ah, the building was used for rave and techno parties from the 1990s, imagine that – marble and electronic music, glass paintings and stroboscope. Somewhere from late 2000s, artists started coming to the area, making it present and interesting for Belgraders again. Do you hear the music? That’s one of the festivals, happening just behind the corner, do you see all the young people? Is the area coming back to life? I remember those times when I was young, thankfully nowadays we could live longer to testify about it. We were a bit afraid back then, afraid of the specter of gentrification, an army of yellow machines tearing down the area we we trying so much to nurture… Let us not interfere here, we need to follow the laws of time travel—stay unspotted, do not change anything.

Stop 4: 2016

Source: Dzodan

After years of being neglected, finally rise and shine! In 2014 the building underwent a major redevelopment as part of Belgrade Waterfront project, which has its seat there. What do you think, do you like the neglected charm or new life? During these years the area started changing drastically—many buildings were torn down and streets disappeared, while others, like Belgrade Cooperative gain a new chance, as part of the investment plan. These skyscrapers behind it are blocking the view towards the river, and many inhabitants found it very controversial—who would live here, when gentrification made it so expensive for all the local people? We… who? Security guard? Oh, do not pay much attention to that guy at the corner, there’s always a busybody at the corner… but we may still go further up the street a bit.

Source: Ne davimo Beograd

(beep beep) Why is this beeping again? Sranje, look at that mass of people, full trust upward… Huh, I’m sorry, I haven’t paid attention to what lies ahead. It seems I took us right in the middle of the protest against Belgrade Waterfront! These people are supporters of Don’t Drown Belgrade initiative. Yes, we’re safe on this altitude. And this was not a violent protest. You can find some data about it in the hand-outs. And that big yellow duck over there – that’s their symbol! “Duck” in Serbian could mean a joke, a scam. Let us move away from here, I can hear the helicopters approaching, and I need some space to maneuver to the next station.

Stop 5: 2074

Source: Black, White & Green studio

Huh, peaceful again. Watch out for the tram. You see, we’re in animated setting! Another artist, comic book author Aleksa Gajić, made a vision of Belgrade which is both old and new, with old-fashion, socialist trams, early 20th century architecture and futurist inventions. The trains are levitating, Belgrade Cooperative has a virtual reality dome, and the Belgrade looks… what do you think, familiar, nostalgic? Nicer than it really is? This was made in 2009, it is interesting to see how people back then imagined our times. (beep beep beep beep) Ok, this is it, the promo tour is ending, I wish to have spend more time with you, for that please do check our full tours, we’ll be able to travel for a whole day, there’s so much to tell about this city… If you have a half of minute of your time, check out the evaluation form and rate me as your guide… thank you, you too, vidimo se neki drugi put!

 

I would like to thank professor Nevena Daković at the University of Arts in Belgrade for her help in writing the original paper, Charlotte E. Whelan for proofreading and Rut Elliot Blomqvist for excellent editing.

Srđan Tunić is an art historian, freelance curator and cultural manager based in Belgrade, Serbia. A fan of science fiction, this is his first text about it. Contact: srdjan.tunic[at]gmail.com

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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In Annihilation, the revolution will not be human

Source: Paramount Pictures

by Laura Perry

Originally published in Edge Effects on February 22, 2018

“It’s like they’re stuck in continuous mutation… making something new,” Natalie Portman’s character realizes in the new ecological thriller, Annihilation. If the film adaptation is anything like Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel of the same name, audiences will leave the theater wondering if the next squirrel or snail they spot is not what it seems but instead “something new,” something alien.

Drawn from his walks in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in southern Florida, VanderMeer’s Annihilation embeds an alien invasion in a kind of ecological Twilight Zone, where aliens appear not as friendly suburban neighbors but in the guise of outlandish plants and animals making their home in a “pristine” stretch of wilderness.

A biologist, anthropologist, surveyor, and psychologist are dispatched as an expedition team—the twelfth, they’re told—to study what government agencies refer to as Area X. At first glance, Area X seems like a few miles of uninhabited, unassuming coastline. The expedition’s members soon realize that though humans have left the area, that does not mean it is uninhabited. There are warblers, flickers, herons, cormorants, black ibises, banana spiders, damselflies, velvet ants, emerald beetles, tree frogs, fiddler crabs, wild boars, bears, coyotes, deer, raccoons, and fungi among the scrub grass, moss, pine and cypress trees, and salt marshes. (And that’s all in the first chapter.)

But there’s also something else. A boar with a strangely human face. Words on the side of a wall inexplicably made of fruiting bodies. A gastropod surrounded by a nimbus of whirling light.

Representing unfamiliar plants and animals as alien invaders is not the sole province of science fiction. Conservation biologists have long debated whether to resist or embrace the aliens who live among us. In an influential 1958 book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, Charles Elton described the movement of animals, plants, and other living things around the globe as a series of “ecological explosions” spurred by “invaders” like the European Starling. As environmental historian Libby Robin puts it: “Elton’s imaginative leap was to reconceptualise biota as invaders, to give them agency, and to construct them as a worthy enemy to be managed.” Deploying militaristic language and likening himself to a “war correspondent,” Elton outlined only three possible approaches to an invasive, alien species: “You can tackle them before they get in or while they are trying, so to speak, to pass through the guard—this is quarantine. You can destroy their first small bridgeheads—that is eradication. … Usually, if an invasion has got really going it can only be dealt with by keeping the numbers within bounds, that is by control.”

More recently, ecologists have come to terms with the idea that aliens may already live among us and may be here to stay. As nineteen ecologists argue in a co-authored 2011 Nature article, “Don’t judge species on their origins,” “increasingly, the practical value of the native-versus-alien species dichotomy in conservation is declining, and even becoming counterproductive.” They go on to suggest that “we must embrace the fact of ‘novel ecosystems’ and incorporate many alien species into management plans, rather than try to achieve the often impossible goal of eradicating them.” Though this idea of embracing novel ecosystems may seem “largely innocuous,” Paul Robbins and Sarah Moore point out that the intensity of the debates about what to do with alien species reveals the ongoing “anxiety, discomfort, conflict, and ambivalence experienced by research scientists in fields confronting ecological novelty in a quickly-changing world.”

“We were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny.”

Annihilation both diagnoses this problem and models a solution in a one-two punch that shows just how useful the genre of science fiction can be. When first confronted with undeniably alien phenomena, the members of the expedition team turn to their disciplines and their training for answers: taking notes, “adding detail and nuance to the maps our superiors had given us,” examining the remains of nearby cabins, and “observing a tiny red-and-green tree frog.” Yet the biologist soon comes to believe that these collective attempts to “catalogue the biological reality” are forms of “misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making others invisible?” Though the biologist values her research, she also concludes that “sometimes you get a sense of when the truth of things will not be revealed by microscopes.”

Her approaches to the environments around her are at once intuitive and immersive as well as data-driven, which helps her better understand and adapt to the alien presences she begins to notice in the pristine wilderness of Area X. As the biologist explains, “we were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny.” Between government-imposed secrecy and Area X’s unfamiliar flora and fauna, the expedition team is left to wonder if their tools and training can provide any answers at all.

The borders between us and the unknown only seem clear in a certain light. Boundaries only exist at the right scale. Zoom out, and humans share an ecosystem, a continent, a hemisphere, and a globe with all manner of extreme forms of life.

Academics are wondering this, too. A recent special issue of the journal Environmental Humanities, “Familiarizing the Extraterrestrial / Making Our Planet Alien,” explores how the “extraterrestrial” now haunts unexpected disciplines like anthropology, philosophy, history, geography, and psychology, as well as fields like science and technology studies. The borders between us and the unknown only seem clear in a certain light. Boundaries only exist at the right scale. Zoom out, and humans share an ecosystem, a continent, a hemisphere, and a globe with all manner of extreme forms of life. Zoom in to the microscopic scale, and as Juan Francisco Salazar points out in his study of microbial geographies, we realize that our guts share a biome with the oceans and we are all hosts to an abundance of aliens, invisible to the eye.

This is where science fiction offers a roadmap to understanding and living with aliens and other unsettling forms of life. As the issue’s editors point out, any “theory of the universe includes poetic leaps; any scientific representation is based on some kind of artistic choice. But these leaps and choices typically remain unnoticed. They stay under the radar because we lack the appropriate tools to spot them.”

The boundary-pushing poetic leaps that make Annihilation such a thrilling read also make it a useful tool for those of us who are looking for new ways of living with neighboring nonhumans. If scientists need training in the uncanny, what better way than a crash course in science fiction? As Ursula Heise, Fredric Jameson, and other literary scholars suggest, by imagining alternate worlds and futures science fiction can “make readers see the present anew.” Science fiction can offer us a language to describe the uncanny that we discover and a model for living in an environment that offers more truths than can be measured by microscopes.

What if we were the invaders, even in our own home? What if invasioncontamination, and their companions, pristine and untouched, were inadequate words to explain what is happening to the world around us? What if trying to explain, measure, or define what phenomena move in and shape our world is a fundamentally fruitless exercise with our existing tools and epistemologies? What if language could be a plant, a missing husband an owl, a stretch of coastline a universe?

Laura Perry is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a graduate associate at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and a member of the Edge Effects editorial board. Her research focuses on species and suburban development in twentieth-century American literature. She is currently a Mellon-Morgridge Graduate Fellow as well as a Public Humanities Exchange (HEX) Fellow. She also hosts Amplify, a weekly radio show on WSUM 91.7 FM Madison. TwitterContact.

La Barceloneta’s Struggle Against (Environmental) Gentrification

Photo: Ovidiu Curcan

by Melissa García Lamarca

Ever since the 1992 Olympic Games put Barcelona on the map, the exponential growth of tourism has moved hand in glove with the explosion of gentrification across the city. Overnight tourist stays in city hotels more than quintupled from 3.7 million in 1990 to over 20 million in 2016, and today a prominent anti-tourism movement has led to a crackdown on Airbnb-style rentals and multiple plans to reclaim the city for locals who are increasingly being pushed out of their neighborhoods.

A look at some of the key urban interventions in one of Barcelona’s most affected areas—the iconic beachfront neighborhood of La Barceloneta—serves to illustrate a city-wide urban struggle that evolved in defense of the needs and rights of residents over capital and profit. Understanding these dynamics from an urban political ecology perspective shows us how urban environments and social relations are shaped, re-shaped, and who benefits and suffers in the process.

 

Transforming La Barceloneta’s borders and local environment

Perhaps unsurprisingly, La Barceloneta was a vastly different neighborhood a century ago. Established in 1753 as a working-class fishing village, it has undergone dramatic social, physical and economic transformations that have had a significant impact on its residents. Boxed in to the east by two factories, to the west by commercial docks, to the north by railroad tracks and to the south by the sea, the transformation of these barriers drove important changes that gradually reformulated the neighborhood as a tourist attraction.

Most notable was the makeover of its seaside, which began in 1966 when several shantytown settlements housing up to 15,000 people were demolished in preparation for a military maneuvre overseen by the dictator Francisco Franco.

Somorrostro 1964. Photo: Ignasi Marroyo, ANC
La Barceloneta’s “rompeolas” during the 1930s.

 

 

In the next major transformation during the 1980s in preparation for the Olympic Games, waterfront warehouses, restaurants, and a breakwater were torn down. The breakwater in particular was an important site of leisure and intimacy for locals, given the extremely small size of flats in the neighborhood—an average 30 square meters­. The subsequent rebuilding of the beach and creation of new public spaces during this period of transformation were both key in drawing visitors and outsiders to the neighborhood.

As a promenade was created along a newly manicured beach, La Barceloneta’s port was also redeveloped. Tourism was prioritized over existing industrial uses. The neighborhood’s historic fishing activity was reduced and the docklands demolished. While the docklands were relocated behind the city’s Montjuïc mountain, fishing and boat repair activity has been relegated to a virtually hidden corner of the port.

Two more recent developments symbolize the prioritization of capital and profit over La Barceloneta’s residents: the Hotel Vela and the luxury yacht club OneOcean Port Vell. Hotel Vela, officially known as the W Barcelona, is a 5-star hotel inaugurated in 2009, whose construction was promoted by the Barcelona port authority—a non-transparent public-private institution—on public land, a mere 20 meters away from the shoreline, in violation of the Spanish Costal Law which prohibits construction less than 100 meters from the seafront.

Hotel Vela

Our walking tour group standing at the entrance to the remainder of La Barceloneta’s fishing port. On the right stands one of OneOcean Port Vell’s buildings on the premise

The members-only club OneOcean Port Vell, unveiled in 2012, visually and physically dominates most of the pedestrianized port, fenced around to prohibit public access from the surrounding public space. The port’s boat repair activity, once dedicated to fishing and shipping boats, now caters to this exclusive and luxury niche market.

 

We won’t move: struggles for a neighborhood for its residents

These transformations, however, have not taken place without resistance. The dockworkers fought against the closure of the docks; although ultimately unsuccessful, their struggle ensured them decent working conditions and salaries that enabled them to continue living in the neighborhood. A grassroots campaign against the Hotel Vela, complete with a music video, was waged to denounce the new development. It continued, however, unabated.

One successful resistance was born a decade ago from several members of the Miles de Viviendas squat in La Barceloneta together with activists from the La Ostia neighborhood association and the Platform in the Defense of the Barceloneta, when the Barcelona city council approved an urban plan in 2007 that involved installing lifts in the neighborhood’s residential buildings. Due to La Barceloneta’s density and the restrictive dimension of most of its buildings, installing lifts entailed demolishing many of them and ultimately displacing 1,500 families—approximately 20% of the neighborhood. Residents believed that this plan would stimulate real estate speculation and encourage a flood of private capital into the area, processes that would expel many of the neighborhood’s working class residents. In response, activists collaborated with the mapping collective Iconoclasistas to create a didactic information pamphlet denouncing the plan. The campaign with the slogan “we won’t move” was ultimately successful and the city withdrew its plan.

“Wake up! No to the elevator plan.” Source: Ecologia Politica

 

Challenging La Barceloneta’s tourism-gentrification model

Today, urban struggles in La Barceloneta revolve largely around the effects of the unrestrained growth of tourism. Protests exploded in the summer of 2014 when several drunk and naked Italian tourists paraded around the neighborhood without reprisal, sparking a neighborhood mobilization against unregulated tourist flats and disrespectful tourist behavior in open spaces. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see the phrase ‘tourist go home’ spray-painted on walls around La Barceloneta in response to tourist flats and to the trash left behind by tourists on the waterfront and beaches. The collective known as Barceloneta Diu Prou (Barceloneta Says Enough) has been regularly mobilizing over the past three years with other neighborhood and city-wide movements to regulate tourism, participating in groups like the Assembly of Neighborhoods for Sustainable Tourism (ABTS) that seek to abolish tourist flats and stop the new cruise ship terminal proposed for the city, which would significantly increase the number and size of boats and visitors.

In an unprecedented shift of Barcelona’s for-profit model of development catered to visitors over residents, the current city administration has taken measures to abate tourism, such as penalizing illegal tourist flats, imposing a moratorium on new hotels, and raising tourists’ awareness of their inappropriate behavior and environmental impact. But given the decades of growth that the city has experienced underneath that model, a change of development patterns and drivers is slow and difficult to implement.

The experience of La Barceloneta highlights the importance of understanding the long history of mobilization and solidarity in gentrifying neighborhoods where residents might have seen some improvements in their open and public spaces and benefited enhanced access to them, but continue to face the threat of record high flat rental prices, displacement and loss of local culture, and overcrowded plazas, waterfront and beaches. Gaining insight on the impacts of past urban transformations, especially from local residents themselves, is critical to forging more socially just and equitable models, policies and interventions.

This post originally appeared on the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability (BCNUEJ) blog.

This post draws on insights from a BCNUEJ walking tour led by local residents and activists: Emma Alari, Santiago Gorostiza, Irmak Ertör and Marina Monsonís.

Melissa García Lamarca is a post-doctoral researcher at BCNUEJ. As a researcher and housing rights activist in Barcelona, she is particularly interested in the financial dynamics driving the rise of the rental housing market and what this means in the context of job and housing precarity. Her research with BCNUEJ’s project on green gentrification (GREENLULUs) explores questions of green growth and social equity, the financial dynamics behind urban greening and community resistance to greening projects.

 

The Transition: towards a psycho-social history

Photo: Bill Couch on Flickr

by Jake Stanning

 

Chapter 2

The Neighbour (Excerpt)

[…] The neighbour then is a lens through which to view this strange and doubly petrified society. As reported by Wei Chen in his magisterial social history of the Channel Earthquake, many victims of the disaster spoke to their neighbours for the first time on that fateful day. The mental ill-health, the impossibility of freedom, the denial of self-management encoded in this chosen isolation is so clear to us now, seems so literally insane, that we must remind ourselves to reach for a position of empathy. This was a world struggling with institutions entirely unsuited to large, complex societies. The damage from these poorly-adapted institutions reached into the human mind itself. Mental ill-health was the norm, and extended well beyond the high rate of diagnosis.

The subject of this chapter is truly difficult to grasp for the student of this period, but the facts revealed in the historical record are clear: most people were terrified of their neighbours. This must be qualified, for it is also true that many people might chat with their neighbour over the garden fence (examples of such boundary demarcation artefacts can be found in historical theme parks around the Western European Isles, and are still in use in parts of East Anglia afflicted by wind and conservatism). However, such informal contact rarely went further. Not one in a hundred engaged in any sort of joint project with their neighbour. Precisely what people were terrified of was working with their neighbour, being with their neighbour in any sustained way. What is more, we must reach further into the alien historical consciousness and admit that this fear was not entirely unfounded

Such a bold statement requires justification, for in our era we see it as common sense that control over our environment requires the ability to work with our neighbour. Yet the entire notion and practice of liberation as bound up with a convivial working-together had not yet been born, stymied as it was by the economic structures of society and by the corresponding culture of isolation. The status quo was such that  the fear of working with others could be justified by the lack of experience in working with others. Thus we must approach at the same time both the absurdity of the fear in which people lived, and the unavoidable logic underlying the frightened state of the early twenty-first century mind.

Firstly we must understand this state of mind as self-reinforcing: the en-cultured isolation created the fear, the fear created the isolation. ‘Common sense’ prior to the Transition stated that one’s neighbours were selfish, grasping and controlling, that their win would be your loss. Without getting to know one’s neighbour, it was difficult to challenge this ‘common sense’. It would take a disaster greater than the Channel Earthquake to escape this simple yet steely trap. 

It is also important to understand that if one did accidentally get to know one’s neighbour, it was likely that one’s misanthropic view of them would merely be confirmed. Accounts of meetings of the time are full of tales of how the rare attempts at neighbourly working-together would break down in outbursts of anger, irresolvable feuds, how one or two people would dominate the debates, while others would say nothing, how frequently they were abandoned in frustration. The curious thing about the domination by particular individuals—one of the most common complaints—is that it could only happen because people allowed it. The dominance/subservience complex of the time will be the subject of several chapters in its own right, its undoing being of vital importance in the Transition. Here we will simply note that, being created both by forced education and the workplace, this complex was almost ubiquitous, and as a result it was almost impossible for any person to view another as truly an equal. This was the insoluble labyrinth within which the trap of fearing the neighbour lay. 

This hints at another self-reinforcing problem the culture had created: isolation from the neighbour was actually debilitating to the ability to work together. Understanding this is key if the contemporary mind is to grasp why the only means of gaining control of one’s life—to meet and work together with others—was so consistently rejected prior to the Transition. It is true that the general fear of the neighbour was very much strengthened by specific prejudices: racism, sexism, phobia of the poor and so on. Yet these factors are often exaggerated in popular histories, in part because they strike us as so foolish. In reality, even given an entirely homogeneous neighbourhood, most people still understood neither the value of escaping the isolation-fear trap, nor the paths out of it that appear so clear to ourselves. 

In one sense, the reason people could not work together is transparently obvious: they had not been trained in how to work together. It would take many decades to understand that meeting together required training, that it should start when young and never stop. Over time schooling came to be understood as it is today: as preparation for working together and making decisions together. The key to the puzzlingly long evasion of this—to us—self-evidently reasonable path lies partly in the fact that it was never overtly rejected: the average mind of the era simply shied away from the very thought of working with the neighbour. Its entire training and sense of self pointed in the opposite direction. ’Freedom’ consisted of doing as one wished, and the contradictions inherent in billions of individuals doing as they wished were glossed over using the trite notion of ‘rights’, and never mind that people would commonly give a hundred different versions of what they considered their rights to be.

To understand why it was not clear to the pre-Transition mind that freedom also required other people, we must delve further into the fears that haunted it. Chats over the garden fence notwithstanding, the fear of the neighbour imbued the very culture in which people lived. As already mentioned, one aspect of the terror concerned the lived practicalities of working together with others. The meeting itself was regarded with horror. It consumed time better spent on one’s own pursuits. It spoke of boredom, of poorly managed debates between battling egos. Above all one would have tolerate the people one had constructed one’s atomised life specifically in order to avoid. Difference, often lauded in word, was usually felt as an onerous burden.

And it is in discussing meetings of the time that we can finally understand why some of this fear was justified. In the absence of training, meetings truly could be an odious experience. One must imagine a meeting as a convergence of loneliness, fear, competitiveness, dominance/subservience, mental ill-health, and ignorance. To create a sense of the very genuine tedium and dysfunctionality this could create, we can try to imagine a group of deeply traumatised people entering a room with relative strangers and attempting to get all their emotional needs met in that space, within a few hours.

We have not yet touched upon another aspect of the everyday terror: the fear of being subsumed into a mass. This was a learned fear, in part deliberately taught, in part inculcated in the institutions of forced education, where it was a very real danger. To examine the extent of this fear, I put it to you that a reader from the early twenty-first century, learning that we no longer have fences between houses, would immediately leap to the conclusion that we instead have between our homes a sort of undifferentiated parkland without boundaries. To the damaged mind of the time, the simple expedient of separately controlled plots, each with an individual character, yet open on all sides to allow entry by agreement, simply would not have occurred. As a result neighbours could not even walk directly between homes when visiting neighbours on streets backing onto theirs. To remove the fence would be to court the total loss of one’s personality.

The true depths of the deleterious effects of the terror of the neighbour can only be understood through a psychological lens. Lack of self-respect is a corollary of seeing others as unequal, for one cannot help but become obsessed with the inequalities and hierarchies within one’s own self. It is this failure of valuing of the self—and the twisted conception of the self as fully autonomous—that did so much to inhibit the Transition. Consider: if two members of a household had such different visions for their garden that they struggled to work together, at no point would either of them (or their neighbours) have considered that one of them might instead work on a neighbour’s plot, with someone whose vision they did share. It’s not that this would have been considered and rejected. The historical record shows that it could not be conceptualised. The constant measurement of one’s neighbour and oneself within a framework of competition and inequality ensured that people could not reach out to each other. The fences were strongest in the mind.

[…]

Jake Stanning is a public sector worker, occasional journalist and constant blogger. His interests are trees and radical politics, which sometimes converge in thinking about commons. He is currently helping to launch London Renters Union.

Are the Chipaya under threat of disappearing ?

PaulaM1
The Kawsay staff filling up the truck’s tank with gas as they got ready to load it with soil. Source: author

by Paula Monroy

The Uru-Chipaya territory is an autonomous indigenous municipality of the Plurinational Republic of Bolivia. The region stands 3876 m. a.m.s.l., located 194 km southwest of Oruro city, northeast of the Coipasa salt flat—the second most important in South America (2500 km2). Currently, the municipality counts with a permanent population of about 1814 people. The main productive activities are subsistence agriculture (quinoa, potatoes and kañahua) and livestock (sheep breeding—approximately 86%, and camelids—approximately 14%) also intended for self-consumption. In December 2015 Lake Poopo dried up and now the Lauca river is facing a similar fate, forcing Chipaya people to flee their territory due to water scarcity.

However, other factors cumulative to the stress occasioned by drought are as well relevant when inquiring how the continuance of the Chipaya nation is challenged. To explore the issues at hand, a skype interview with Leonel Cerruto, Founder and Director of KAWSAY-Centro de Culturas Originarias, was conducted. As an institution, Kawsay has the main objective of strengthening indigenous originary campesino organizations through projects that include La Escuela de la Madre Tierra (The Mother Earth School). The conversation started with a discussion about tourism.

I wanted to start off by asking you about the tourism initiative in the Chipaya territory. When I was there I remember hearing from our brothers about an Italian man coming in and incentivizing the overture to tourism. Are you aware of how that is going so far?

Leonel Cerruto: A few years ago the community built an albergue in Chipaya, but it is not doing very well. To my understanding, an organization is currently doing some work financed by the European Union, but [Kawsay is] not working with them. [Kawsay’s] strategy is more community oriented. They [the organization] want to promote tourism in general. However, it is up to the autonomous indigenous government to decide in the end. The autonomy was voted ‘yes’ with close to 80% of the votes. We are happy because it was the last step to confirm the indigenous autonomy. We will enter a process of transition to formalize [the Chipaya’s] own government. A bigger challenge will come about, such as where will the community get resources from, because people go to Chile to work and make money so they can sustain themselves. In that sense, tourism is a good choice because it does not require a big investment.

The organization Leonel referred to is GVC Italia—Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (Civil Volunteer Group). As he stated, the European Union is financing the project, which was named “Qnas Soñi (People of the Water): CHIPAYA, between tradition and technology, towards a resilient municipality”. It is an intervention plan that aims to assist the Chipaya people in adopting a strategy that pretends to help them reclaim their cultural identity and ‘treasure’ their ancestral inheritance. It pretends to do so by implementing four processes associated with the construction of a resilient community, one of which is developing services for tourists and promote it as a cultural destination nationally and worldwide.

It appears to be a good idea, but there is something missing. In their website, the organization [GVC] overlooks the importance of conducting an impact assessment. The Chipaya territory is located in a zone with pandemic flora and fauna species. Considering the Poppo Lake dried up not long ago, introducing an initiative like the one [GVC] is promoting would be adding more pressure to the ecosystem. For example, tourism requires sanitary services and food. It could also bring more garbage in the area like plastic water bottles and snack packages. What do you think?

L. C.: We are not too informed about [GVC]’s project. We’ve been more focused on the indigenous autonomy aspect. We are assisting the community in mobilizing to spread their own statuto because there were some people opposing to the indigenous autonomy. [GVC] is separate from us. However, things are about to change. For example, now that the indigenous autonomy has been adopted, the governance structure will change. So, tourism will be discussed in a participatory manner.

The state is interested, yes, but the problem I see is that they are not looking at it from the Chipaya perspective. They label it as ‘community tourism’, but they are misunderstanding it for rural tourism, which is not community tourism at all.

To my understanding the state is supporting [GVC]’s project.

L. C.: The state is interested, yes, but the problem I see is that they are not looking at it from the Chipaya perspective. They label it as ‘community tourism’, but they are misunderstanding it for rural tourism, which is not community tourism at all.

PaulaM4
A landscape of the Chipaya territory. Source: author

What comes to mind is the experience of my hometown Tepoztlan in regards of tourism in general. Back in the early 1900s Robert Redfield, American anthropologist and ethno-linguist, published a study about the campesino community in the village, which attracted sociologist Oscar Lewis whose research in the village revolved around poverty. Since then, the village underwent a process of urbanization as it became a hotspot for academic tourism. Then rich people were drawn to live there seasonally because intellectuals and artists were also living there. The pyramid and customs made Tepoztlan a mystical village that to this day receives thousands of visitors every year without any sort of control or regulation.

L. C.: What you are saying is true. We have to be careful when integrating tourism. What worries me, which I imagine is similar to what you just mentioned, is that the Chipaya is an ancient culture not only in Bolivia but in the continent. So tourism is a threat. It is valid what you were saying. This reminds me of the Taquile island found in the Peruvian side of the Titicaca Lake. It is a community that self-started tourism and yet did not change their everyday activities, which are all tourist attractions. Each family gets a tourist, and the community has a common fund they collectively administer and also redistribute between the families. This is a good reference of how community tourism is organized and administrated. I know many instances in Ecuador that are more diverse in this branch. In other words, there are many forms of community tourism that are more controlled and the flow of tourists is regulated. The problem is when money dominates the situation.

Yes, I agree. In Tepoztlan, for instance, people are turning their backs on agriculture and prefer to sell their land, land they inherited in most cases, as it is a faster source of income. This is problematic because the territory is fragmented and has become vulnerable to privatization.

L. C.: Right. This is also observed in Cusco. It is a very important point, indeed. Once a territory is fragmented, cultural identity is also fragmented. Indigenous autonomy is important because it integrates the political and especially the spiritual aspect. The latter should be reincorporated.

Putting this in the Chipaya context, what would you suggest as a strategy? Considering that globalization is already changing the lifestyles of teenagers.

L. C.: One way is by recuperating the ancestral view to regain spirituality. This is key. For example, last month I was at a meeting with a group of elders who were saying the importance of seeing the earth as a living being. Once nature is seen as someone who is alive, it is treated as if it were alive. This vision needs to be retaught to young people. We are working with youth to help them integrate in the community life.

In other words, there are many forms of community tourism that are more controlled and the flow of tourists is regulated. The problem is when money dominates the situation.

PaulaM3
A grain and seed storage hut. Source: author

Once nature is seen as someone who is alive, it is treated as if it were alive.

Don’t you think it’s a bit complicated with the internet and mobile phones?

L. C.: That is a reality and we need to embrace it. The internet cannot be eliminated. Most young people have cellphones and they spend most of their time chatting on it. The goal is to help them give the internet a different use. It is not a matter of prohibition, it is rather a matter of switching the use they make of this technology. We are producing videos with them, they are coming up with their own presentations with their own communities. It has been working positively so far, as participants are getting more engaged with their culture and identity. They are integrating in the communal activities more and more.

Are ancient rituals such as capturing the wind and harvesting dunes still practised?

L. C.: Yes, although I am not specifically sure about those two. But, we are working on reincorporating traditional practices into the spiritual and ritual activities. It is a slow process because not all participants accept it right away. It also depends on their families and community. In Charagua, a community where we are undergoing a similar project, we are doing pretty well. Participants are very active and actively integrate in the community.

In regards of food sovereignty and drought…

L. C.: That is serious. Especially in the Andean part, which includes the Chipaya territory, and the Chaco region. It is a desperate situation because, for example, the potato seeds that were cultivated could not germinate as it has not rained.

There is a study online stating that the drought of the Poppo lake is due to water mismanagement.

L. C.: On the one hand, as you say, it is due to water mismanagement. There seems to be a lack of communal management of the resources and a lack of prevention measures. On the other hand, one cannot ignore that drought and el Nino are effects of climate change. The absence of rain is not necessarily because the little water available is mismanaged. Climate change plays a big role in all of this. Both things are cumulative. Another thing I am realizing is that some news are manipulated with political intent. What is true for Bolivia is that, according to official reports, 40% of our glaciers have been lost in the past years. This means that our mountains have less snow, resulting in less water supplying to the rivers and springs. It is undeniable. We have many snowcaps that have lost snow, thus there is no water running from those places. Consequently, there are less volumes of water feeding the rivers. So this is what has been going on. There is no prevention, the proper measurements have not been taken to come up with a contingency plan, for instance. Our water resources continue being used as if nothing was happening. It is a complex matter, and climate change is a key cause.

PaulaM2
The rooftops of two neighbouring homes. Source: author

The absence of rain is not necessarily because the little water available is mismanaged. Climate change plays a big role in all of this. Both things are cumulative.

The following is something that I have been noticing (since my childhood) in communities deemed ‘poor’ in the capitalist sense. It is a dependency on the government for help, or an expectation to be helped from above. While conducting an interview in the Chipaya nation, the interviewee asked for financial aid to the government for the construction of a diversion canal, as if a bureaucrat would watch the video. His colleague told me that the money had already been approved and they were just waiting for the government to hand it out.

L. C.: Absolutely. More than the government it would be the state, though. This government has been giving out more resources, and it is up to the municipality to manage those resources according to the needs of the population. If the municipal agents do not allocate the resources properly, neither will the communities. In the last couple of years this has become a generation of dependency. For this reason, local authorities need to be strengthened, especially in the area of communal organization. This is something we are working on permanently. With the indigenous autonomy they should as well strengthen their organization so it is less dependant on the central state.

Car traffickers don’t respect the borders and the municipality was not capable of keeping them away either. The indigenous autonomy now allows the local authorities to fairly manage their territory.

I noticed that car trafficking is another threat to the territory. What is your opinion on this matter?

Indeed, trafficked cars are driven into their territory, but the Chipaya people are not involved in it. It is up to them to build barriers that will keep [car traffickers] from crossing. Territorial control has been a struggle that the Chipaya people have not been able to do to these days. Car traffickers don’t respect the borders and the municipality was not capable of keeping them away either. The indigenous autonomy now allows the local authorities to fairly manage their territory.

Let me pause to briefly explain what the indigenous autonomy is about. Back in 2007, with 4 states against (Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia)—and the abstention of 11 states (which included Colombia and the Russian Federation)—the United Nations’ General Assembly passed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by a majority of 143 votes in favour. Two years later, President Evo Morales made the official launch of the indigenous autonomy process with the Decree Law 231. As it is recognized in Article 2 and Article 290 of the constitution, indigenous peoples have the right to self-govern their ancestral territory in harmony with law and constitution as long as it is done within the structure of the unitary state.

A Chipaya man showing his hunting technique. Source: author
A Chipaya man showing his hunting technique. Source: author

I read a UN report that says that the health issues [Chipaya] children and women are more prone to get are anemia and malnutrition. What I found concerning is that during my visit I did not see any health centres.

L. C.: Presently, there have been some incentives from the state in this regard. However, as we were saying before [about depending on the state], as indigenous nations we had always had our own systems, not just in regards of health. We have ancestral wisdom. School teaches other ideas about culture.

Is the content taught at public school designed by the state?

L. C.: It is one thing that it is provided by the state, which should be the case anyway, and yet it should be the community who creates its own education system. Resources should be provided by the state because it’s part of a country; but, in this case, communities should have more capabilities to maintain their own education system.

Do you think this could be done in the indigenous autonomy?

L. C.: Yes, relatively because the educative system is centralized by the state. It will be more attainable as [the Chipaya people] get their own system, which needs further strengthening. In the instance of Bolivia, there are three curriculum levels: one is central, another is regional, and the third, which has not been effectively developed, is local. Therefore, it is possible to continue working on regular education. On the other hand, there is the need to continue working on our own community education, which is what indigenous nations have always had for thousands of years. Yet, since these themes are no longer researched in depth, it is as if they did not exist. All cultures have had their own education or formation systems that are actually meant to attain wisdom, including health and any other system. It is important to clarify which are our own systems.

All indigenous cultures have their own ecological principles, or cosmovision. When these principles are forgotten the ecosystem is destroyed.

To conclude, would you say the Chipaya nation is under threat of disappearing?

L. C.: Yes. However, the indigenous autonomy can facilitate the Chipaya people the possibility of recuperating their culture. The Urus are in the process of going extinct, though. A segment of the Uru population lived near the Poppo Lake. Since the lake dried up, they lost their livelihood because they are essentially fishermen. They were forced to migrate. For this reason, their territorial structure is scattering. They are moving to urbanized regions because they no longer have a means to survive. This is happening in a different region of Oruro. It is happening to other cultures, too, and the process is similar: it disjuncts, scatters, and then disappears. There has been progress in the case of the Chipaya nation because the indigenous autonomy will allow them to develop their own life model by strengthening their ancestral culture. At least that is what is hoped. All indigenous cultures have their own ecological principles, or cosmovision. When these principles are forgotten the ecosystem is destroyed.

 

Paula Monroy is an undergraduate student at Concordia University majoring in Urban Studies.

Punch Nazis when the timing is right

Richard-Spencer-punch-1-600x348-1

by Sam Bliss

Whether or not it is okay to punch a Nazi is the wrong question. Even those who say, No, it is not okay to punch a Nazi, would probably support waging all-out war against Nazis in certain situations. World War Two comes to mind.

The twittersphere hasn’t produced many interesting, intelligent discussions on the topic firstly because a social network of one-line postings never really hosts deliberative democracy, but also because the disagreeing factions are not necessarily arguing about the same thing. Of course it is okay to punch a Nazi, sometimes.

The more interesting question is this one: When is it okay to attack Nazis in what ways?

The person who socked well-known white nationalist leader Richard Spencer while he was being interviewed by a journalist in D.C. after the inauguration last Friday did not punch him just to punch him. If the black-clad individual had merely wanted to whack the bigot who coined the term “alt-right,” they would have done so at a moment when Spencer was not on camera surrounded by a small crowd.

The goal was to interfere with the interview, to stop Spencer from disseminating his anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, anti-Semitic hatred. Or rather, to stop the ignorant, click-hungry media from enabling the self-identified “identitarian” from spewing his anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, Semitic vitriol. The goal may also have been to humiliate him, and to get some laughs from those who agree that Spencer’s clean-shaven, contemptible face deserves a good, hard right hook to the face.

My opinion is that yes, it was a defensible punch. It shut Spencer up. Spencer states that the United States belongs to white men. He openly advocates black genocide and does not deserve a chance to speak. More on that in a minute.

This brings me to another interesting question: did the punch backfire? Some non-violence advocates insist that it makes anti-racists and anti-fascists look bad. We should not use the disrespectful tactics of the enemy, so the argument goes. Violence only breeds more violence. It is never justified, according to these anti-violence voices.

This is naïve—and possibly dangerous. From India’s independence from Britain to the end of U.S. slavery, racism has not been defeated with words, but by direct opposition. Anger may lead to the dark side, but Jedis do use light sabers. Non-violent anti-racism looks bad—when racists win.

To me, the punch might have backfired because now many more people have watched the interview than ever would have if not for the blow to the jaw. Giving airspace to people like Spencer gives them power. Look at what happened with President Trump. Or Adolf Hitler, for that matter. Repetitively communicating their despicable message is how people like them end up in the position to order the rest of us around. Both good press and bad press reward them with public attention.

From this perspective, the media should not have been interviewing Spencer in the first place. It will take a lot of restraint for the media to sacrifice traffic – and thus advertising revenue – by passing up click-worthy opportunities to shine the light on far-right extremists who feel empowered to organize and speak up in the age of Trump.

On the other hand, I learned that the alt-right is basically Nazism thanks to this incident. The popularity of the video—the internet has now set The Punch to various epic songs—has exposed people to the ridiculous racism of the alt-right. Because of it, we are more aware that this scary movement is gaining momentum. The chances have increased that we can stop the alt-right before we are forced to resort to violence much more serious than a sucker punch.

If the media ignores Nazis and Trump completely, then they can go about their evil ways hidden from public sight. But if the media gives them too much attention, it spreads their message.

So the question then becomes: when do we ignore Nazis, when do we report on them, and when do we punch them in the face? The media and non-media need to think hard about this one, every time. All three courses of action have their proper time and place.

Sam Bliss is a PhD student at the University of Vermont in the Economics for the Anthropocene research initiative. He loves reading, singing, and slow travel and strongly dislikes post-environmentalism.